pmane udayakumar

AAP: Fast heading towards Gracchi Brothers Redux

In a short time, the Aam Aadmi Party has risen from nothing to capture the mindshare of voters who are tired of all of India’s political choices. The demand for None-Of-The-Above (NOTA) option on the ballot is the clearest indicator of this pox-on-both-your-houses belief of many citizens. Unfortunately, politics is never so simple that a reboot – a fresh start – will untangle its onerous web. Whether springing from amateurishness or ignorance, the AAP’s energy policy is a sure recipe to plunge India into darkness.

The AAP’s outright rejection of nuclear energy and its courting of SP Udayakumar, leader of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), to represent the AAP in Tamil Nadu should cause an overdose of orexin (panic inducing hormone) in anyone. The pitfall of voting a single-issue group into power, however desirable their platform, is the failure of said group to understand the complexities of other policy areas.

As of November 2013, India’s total power generation stood at approximately 232 GW. If the country intends to grow its economy at 9% per annum, electricity consumption needs to more than double by 2035 and grow almost seven-fold by 2050. Presently, some 300 million Indians have no access to electricity and for the others, India’s definition of electrification seems a cruel statistical joke – a village is deemed electrified if just 10% of the households have access to electricity. India needs all the energy it can get from every source possible to sustain growth and create jobs for its hundreds of millions of aam aadmis; it is criminal irresponsibility to reject nuclear energy on ideological grounds.

The AAP also ignores the ₹17,270 crores India has spent on constructing the first two nuclear reactors at Kudankulam. Furthermore, shutting down nuclear power will negate not only the benefits of the Indo-US nuclear deal that were won with hard bargaining but it will also dismantle the vast nuclear infrastructure that has been built up since even before independence in physical assets as well as know-how. Abandoning the nuclear path – electricity is not the only thing nuclear reactors are used for – will affect medicine, agriculture, mining, archaeology, hydrology, and several other fields that are made easier by the use of radioisotopes. The AAP’s decision to oppose nuclear energy will also hang a question mark on India’s nuclear arsenal – it can hardly be argued that only power reactors are dangerous and those used for military purposes are not.

It is also disconcerting that while the AAP has been quick to denounce nuclear energy, that quickness has not been on display in suggesting alternatives. Much is made of Germany’s heroic retreat from nuclear energy, its Energiewende, but even the Left-leaning magazine Dissent called Berlin’s Green Energy Revolution a dismal and disquieting failure. Electricity prices have climbed by up to 75%, carbon emissions have increasedsubsidies on renewable energy have climbed through the roof, and ironically, Germany’s occasional imports of energy from its neighbours to tide over a lean period have come from nuclear power. Given the real cost of the Energiewende, it seems more of an anti-nuclear obsession than a thoroughly considered policy – much like the AAP’s policy.

The arguments in favour of nuclear energy are many and though not the focus of this article, underline the single-issue nature of the AAP. The result of abandoning nuclear energy for its potential risks comes at the actual price of 115,000 deaths per annum and a negative health impact to millions of people due to coal power. The medical costs of coal sets India back approximately $4.6 billion per annum, to which can be added environmental clean up costs for electricity generation, transportation, and mining. A coal mining death every five days pales in comparison to the magnitude of the other losses. As for renewables, wind is fickle as the Coimbatore region can testify after 2013, and using the size of the Sambhar lake project as an indicator, India would need to cover an area approximately double the size of Goa to meet today’s needs and an area the size of Punjab by 2050 to meet energy demands via solar power alone.

The AAP came to power in Delhi on a japa of good governance, though many are wary of their stated plans even on that matter. Like a bunch of activists propelled unexpectedly into the political fray, they have hurriedly reached out to other activist outfits such as the PMANE. Unfortunately for Arvind Kejriwal and his merry band, a coherent national policy is more than the sum of individual issues; energy affects labour, health, industry, and foreign policy; labour and health affect industry and agriculture; industry affects environment, security, and health; and so on. No one issue can be allowed to dominate the national scene.

Were the AAP genuinely concerned about their self-declared constituency, it would focus more, as the cliche goes, on increasing the size of the pie rather than dividing it into even more yet smaller pieces. There are genuine concerns in the nuclear industry that are drowned out in cacophony of activists, for example, the findings of the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2012. Good governance would be better served, as would energy, labour, industry, environment, and health, were the AAP to create pressure in parliament to institute the nuclear safety suggestions made by the CAG and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Implementation of rules and regulations is a core principle of good governance, but the AAP has chosen so far only to chart territory new and unfamiliar to it. Perhaps this is the result of the party’s inexperience and their desire to leapfrog through India’s national conundrums to resemble a mature entity; this has not worked well so far. It is too early to see how much the AAP lives up to its anti-corruption promise but until now, it has made the news for its disbursement of national wealth through ill-conceived subsidies than any coherent policy.

About 2,100 years ago, there lived two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, in Rome. They were nobiles who forced a populist agenda on Rome and in the end, their actions were a fatal blow from which the Republic would never recover. Though their reforms had some legitimate grounding, the Gracchi brothers are more remembered for the turbulence and violence that marked their time as consuls than any reforms they brought in to alleviate the plight of the masses (none except the grain subsidy outlived them). The AAP would do well to note their example.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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